Can the use of DNA be extended beyond biological purposes? Can DNA store other forms of data? Well, when we speak about DNA, we picturize it as a set of genetic code composed of ATGC – the pattern that is unique in each one of us. Since conception till the formation of a body inside a mother’s womb, it’s the DNA instructions which every cell follows to perform structurize creation. It is the same DNA that programs us and serves as a blueprint for every cell to perform its functions ritually.

What appalled scientists lately is the ability of DNA to store a vast amount of digital data pretty much like a magnetic tape! Yes, it has been revealed that DNA, the compound called deoxyribonucleic acid, shares a similar functionality as a magnetic tape. Honestly, I found it strange to seek the future of data storage in biology? Should we bother to do that?

Issues With The Existing Form Of Storage

  • In just the past two years, humanity has created more data than ever in all history. Production of hard drives or magnetic tapes is unable to match the speed with which this avalanche of information is produced.
  • The attrition rate of magnetic tapes is 22% and hence need replacement in every 5 or 10 years as they get outdated.
  • All digital devices take up a lot of space which are costly yet not durable.
  • Also, in a single event of nuclear fallout, every bit of stored information whether digital or written can be lost.

How DNA Data Storage Makes A Difference

  • The information storage density of DNA is exceptionally higher in several orders of magnitude than any other storage media.
  • DNA is ultracompact and holds 2.2 petabytes per gram where 1 petabyte is equal to 1 million gigabytes which means that a shoebox filled with DNA can fit all of the world’s data in it.
  • As per fossil records and evidence, when preserved carefully, DNA can hold information as old as thousands of years, hence serving as an ideal unit for long-term storage.
  • DNA is resistant to heat and humidity.
  • As DNA uses organic matter, it is more efficient than existing mechanisms of data storage.

The Process Of DNA Data Storage In Practice

Binary information is encoded in the form of 0s and 1s whereas data in DNA is stored in strings made of four base components – Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine called AGCT. For storing non-genetic information, bits are translated to the four-unit sequence of DNA where 00=A, 01=G, 10=C and 11=T and while retrieving the data, decoding converts the sequence to bits accordingly.

Recently, researchers were able to successfully store 150 kilobytes of emails on a synthetic DNA strand. Since extracting human DNA is unethical, scientists are only interested in synthesizing it from scratch. The benefit of synthetic DNA is that it doesn’t get degraded over time and can be duplicated endlessly. It even outstrips silicon semiconductors in terms of density, random access, permanence, redundancy, low energy use, universal read technology and encryption. This indeed brings a great data storage revolution where scientists are hoping for a breakthrough of storing exabytes of information and making it commercially available as affordable storage in future.

Would DNA data storage solve the 21st century’s biggest problem of information overload?

As the technology is in its infancy, the economics of writing DNA is posing challenges in terms of cost and access time. Currently, storage of one minute of high-quality stereo sound costs around $100,000. And many hours are spent to write and read data from DNA which makes it impractical for real-time applications. DNA can also be an immense carrier for sensitive data such as cryptographic keys and private information. With a massive potential of DNA yet to unleash, we hope that financial and engineering barricades are removed soon and with the efforts of consumer genetics and synthetic biology, futuristic organic archiving becomes realistic.